Patrick Kennedy: Members of Congress battle mental illness in their families but vote against help

Rick Klein, Olivier Knox & Jordyn Phelps
Power Players
Patrick Kennedy: Members of Congress battle mental illness in their families but vote against help

Top Line

When Patrick Kennedy returned to Congress following a DWI for driving drunk in 2006, he made a point of going to thank fellow members of Congress who had sent him “get well” cards in rehab.

The former Rhode Island congressman tells “Top Line” that he came across story after story from members of Congress who were also personally affected by mental illness or addiction.

“All of them told me about how a parent committed suicide, or their spouse tried to commit suicide, or a daughter had an eating disorder, or a son a substance abuse disorder,” Kennedy recalls.

But many of those same members, Kennedy says, were unwilling to vote for the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act that Kennedy sponsored in the House of Representatives in 2008 in an effort to improve insurance coverage guidelines for mental illness.

“I went up to them and said, ‘Hey, how was it that you couldn't vote for this and they said … It's personal, and I can't afford to have any of you folks from the media ask me why did I vote for something called mental health and addiction?’”

Now retired from Congress, Kennedy is continuing his advocacy work and working to break the stigma around mental illness.

In conjunction with the 50th Anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s signing of the Community Mental Health Act -- a law that he refers to as “the beginning of the modern mental health policy for America” -- Kennedy is launching a new initiative, The Kennedy Forum, aimed at improving mental health care policy.

“The point of The Kennedy Forum is to focus on good public policy at a time when we have tools thanks to the Affordable Care Act to actually implement better mental health policy,” Kennedy says.

On the topic of his cousin Caroline Kennedy’s recent appointment to become the next U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Kennedy says he and his entire family are “rooting for her.”

“My cousin Caroline is enormously qualified for anything she would ever be selected for, but on top of that, she carries herself with such grace and dignity,” Kennedy tells “Top Line.” “Clearly we're all big fans and rooting for her.”

Kennedy’s appointment solidifies a dynasty of Kennedys serving in diplomatic posts.

Asked about the significance of having another ambassador in the family, Kennedy says, “Clearly there's been a few in the family, but there have also been a few reps and senators.”

To learn more about The Kennedy Forum and Rep. Kennedy’s personal story of treating mental health problems, check out this episode of “Top Line.”

ABC's Michael Conte, Betsy Klein, Patrick O'Gara, Wayne Boyd, and Barry Haywood contributed to this episode.